Return To Ziam Qala

Return To Ziam Qala
This place had not changed in forty years. Out of the misty haze of a hot summer afternoon, the silhouette of the Qala – little fortress – emerged as we turned the corner from the canal bank onto the dirt road. Three kids, maybe eight or ten years old, sat on the roadside by the canal eating watermelon. From the jagged pieces of the melon I could tell that, lacking a knife, they had smashed the melon with a stone and then torn up the pieces. As they bit through the flesh, the juice flowed down their dirty chins.

We turned into the arched wooden gateway into the compound and parked by the thatched roof hujra- the communal gathering place, in the middle of the compound. On three sides of the fortress there were mud and brick one-story quarters for the low officials of the canal department: Ziledar, the revenue officer; Tar-Babu, the telegraph clerk; the overseer of the canal gang; the medical man; peons and other minor functionaries. By the entrance gate on the right side a few small rooms served as medical dispensary. From the dispensary, a flight of wide stairs led to a high platform where a colonial dak bungalow served the high officials during their brief visits to the area.  The houses and the dak bungalow were in disrepair from the passage of time.

I took a walk to the far end of the fortress to a particular quarter. A few walls were all that was left of the three-room dwelling. The tiny courtyard was overgrown with weeds. Time had washed away all signs of its previous inhabitants. As a schoolboy, I had spent many a summer vacation staying with my older brother, the revenue officer, in this house.

A small wooden door in the fortress wall, still functional, led to the orchard in the back. On a bent limb we used to perch at noon and chew sugar cane pilfered from neighboring fields. There was also a mulberry tree that produced the biggest and the sweetest mulberries around the fortress. That apple and orange orchard was our playground on hot summer afternoons. When the adults retired to their quarters for siesta, we had the whole fortress to ourselves. We would sneak out, go around in the fortress to avoid detection, and swim in the muddy but refreshing water of the canal.

The Qala and many others like it, were built at the turn of the 20th century, when canals were dug out of Swat River to irrigate the arid land in the Pashtun hinterland. These were the outposts of a central authority, not unlike the forts built in the American west. Presence of government functionaries in the countryside gave opportunities for the villagers and farmers to redress their problems close to home. Built away from the villages and usually on the canals, these little fortresses became communities in themselves. This fortress was built near the village of Ziam and hence it was called Ziam Qala.

The hujra has a unique place in Pashtun culture. A male domain only, it serves as the communal meeting place, a guest house, and for just plain lazing around. The inhabitants of the fortress would gather here in the afternoons to lounge on string cots and smoke chilam, the communal water pipe. Occasionally someone would bring a tray of tea from his house. In summer, the men would linger on until late in the evening, discussing the happenings of the day or any other topic that happened to be on their minds. It was under the thatched roof of this hujra forty years ago that I witnessed a fierce confrontation between a Pashtun father and his son

Hamish Gul was a lowly functionary in irrigation department. He supervised the work gangs that repaired irrigation channels. He lived in a tiny two-room mud quarter across from the hujra. Most afternoons he would be in the hujra smoking water pipe and monopolizing the conversation with his big talk and equally big boasts. He had a 22-year-old son, a high school dropout, who still lived at home. He had never held a steady job, even though the visiting officials had obliged the old man on occasions by hiring his son. Instead, the son went around the neighbourhood bullying people, picking fights and stealing money.

One afternoon the usual group had gathered in the hujra, and the talk turned toward the young man’s shenanigans. Hamish Gul listened patiently as he was told, perhaps for the umpteenth time, as to what a bad name his son was bringing to his father. Upon listening to all that, Hamish Gul declared that he had ordered his son not to enter his house again. Tar-Babu, the telegraph clerk, said, “You know he is going to come back, no matter what you say. He has done it before.”

Hamish Gul became agitated and in a booming voice declared the ultimate, “If that bastard son of mine ever enters my home, you may call me a divorcee.” Now for a Pashtun to be labelled a divorcee – meaning divorced by his wife – is the ultimate insult, and invites severe retaliation.

Precisely at that moment that “bastard” appeared from behind a nearby tree where he had been hiding and listening to the conversation. He started walking toward their house across the compound. There was a hush in the hujra. Hamish Gul yelled at him to stop. Defiantly, the son kept walking. At this point, Hamish Gul drew his gun and aimed. There was a pin-drop silence for what seemed to a long, long time. Then Hamish Gul’s hands started to tremble. The son reached the door, lifted the burlap curtain, and disappeared.

Caught between his honour and his only son, he chose the latter. Hamish Gul placed the gun back in the holster, and with his head hung in disgrace walked slowly toward the main gate. For weeks he didn’t come to the hujra.
Much of the innocence and simplicity of the past was lost to the progress and convenience of the present age. Ziam Qala was just not relevant anymore

Just behind the hujra was the three-room brick and mud quarters of the medic. A burly man in this 40s, the medic was in charge of the small dispensary in the Qala. He had learned the art of medicine as a dispenser and compounder in Lady Reading Hospital, Peshawar. After twenty years of service, he was sent to the countryside to run dispensaries, where he tended to the needs of the villagers and the residents of the Qala. He was called Doctor Sahib, and he enjoyed the status. By nine o’clock in the morning, there would gather a crowd of twenty or twenty-five people outside the dispensary. Doctor Sahib would come out of his quarters and walk the hundred yards or so to the dispensary. There, with the help of a young peasant he would dispense medicinal mixtures and powders. The parting advice to patients, irrespective of the malady, was always the same: stay away from beef and red peppers. For special patient, usually the resident officials, the doctor would boil a glass syringe on a kerosene stove and give them an injection of God-knows-what.

Though it was supposed to be a free service, the villagers would show their appreciation by presenting the medic with gifts of chickens, eggs, honey, and fruit. The chickens however, were a problem. He would let them loose in the compound, along with the chickens of other residents. Somehow, the doctors’ chickens ended up missing. To prevent the residents from consuming his chickens, the medic started to tag his chickens with bright colored ribbons. This, however, did prevent some of us from consuming his chickens. By mistake, of course.

A colonial dak bunglow not unlike the one in Ziam Qala

We walked back to the wide stairs leading up to the dak bungalow. The chowkidar had put a few chairs out on the verandah. A few residents had gathered out of curiosity, since not many visitors frequented the place anymore. Dr. Alaf Khan, my companion, told them about my return visit after forty years. I asked whether any of the old timers were still around. They did not recognise any of the names I mentioned. Someone suggested we should ask Said Ali Kaka, an old man whose grandson worked for the canal department. While someone went to get the greybeard, I went inside the bungalow to look around.

The dak bungalow had seen better days. It was now a sad reminder of its past when high officials would come on tour and stay for a day or so. The drawing room furniture was old and in disrepair.  The gleaming coffee table had lost its lustre and was marked with ugly blotches left by hot utensils. Gone was the old flap fan suspended from the ceiling. The hole in the wall was still there where a rope, attached to the fan, would be pulled by a peon sitting on the verandah. It was replaced by an electric ceiling fan. The cupboards were bereft of books.

Dirty curtains hung from wooden brackets in the two bedrooms. A few broken windowpanes were patched up with cardboard.  The dirty webbing from the beds was torn in places and dangling on the floor. Piled on one bed were cotton mattresses, quilts, pillows, and dingy sheets. In the bathroom the washstand bearing enameled pitcher and basin set was replaced by a leaky faucet and basin. In place of the claw-foot cast iron bathtub, there was a built-in tub and a shower head. Gone was the wooden commode; in its place there was a European toilet with a broken seat and water continuously running down the bowl. “The place looks unused,” I told the chowkidar. “Yes sir, the officials don’t want to spend on upkeep.” Ziam Qala and its dak bungalow were not as important now and thus were left to the ravages of time.

Said Ali Kaka was an old man with a flowing white beard. Though his eyesight and hearing were failing, he talked in a strong voice. I introduced myself and my companion, Dr. Alaf Khan, and asked if he knew him. “Yes, Sahib, I know Dr. Alaf Khan,” he said with confidence.  “Dr. Sahib took care of me in 1974 when I was admitted to his ward in Lady Reading Hospital.” I thought the old man was making it up because in 1974 Dr. Alaf Khan was a junior teacher and not head of a medical unit in the hospital. Then the old man surprised us by his accuracy.

“Doctor Sahib, if you remember,” he addressed Alaf Khan, “your head boss Dr. Siraj had gone on a long leave and you had become in charge of the ward. And moreover, everyone around these lands knows you. After all, you are one of us, and we are so proud of your accomplishments.”
The dak bungalow had seen better days. It was now a sad reminder of its past when high officials would come on tour and stay for a day or so. The drawing room furniture was old and in disrepair.  The gleaming coffee table had lost its lustre and was marked with ugly blotches left by hot utensils

Dr. Alaf Khan has a unique background.  Born to a dirt farmer about twenty miles from Ziam Qala, he was the first in his family and the tribe to go to school and college. Along the way he achieved academic distinctions that have not been duplicated since. After receiving his medical education in Britain, he returned to the Northwest Frontier Province in 1970 and soon established himself as a remarkable physician and teacher.  The old man was quite accurate in his recollection.

I inquired about the old inhabitants of the Qala. He said he had heard about them but had not met any of them. The old man had come to this Qala in the early 1950s when he was 30 years old. He worked as a labourer and then as a gang leader supervising the repair work of the canal.  His son took the job when the old man retired.

“Did you know where Hamish Gul is?” I asked about the man who had come close to killing his son.

“Yes, I do know,” he said. “Upon his retirement, Hamish Gul moved back to his village near Mardan, where he died five winters ago. His son, that good-for-nothing harami, is serving time for murder. May Allah forgive him. He is a terrible man.”

“And how about the Tar-Babu?” I asked.

“Sahib, you must have known that the man was crazy. But then you have to be crazy to work in the canal department. The department fired him for his erratic behavior and eventually he ended up in a mental hospital.”

“Do you have a doctor in the Qala now?”

“No, Sahib, the government has pulled out all the key people from this place. The doctor, the Tar-Babu, the overseer, and the Ziledar, they all now live in bigger towns. Even the Patwari, the lowly field revenue functionary, lives away and comes on a motor scooter to visit. The whole Qala is run-down, just like the hujra down there.”

The old man was lamenting the glorious days of the past, conveniently forgetting that with the ease of travel, a good public transport system, better roads and telephone links, distances didn’t mean much anymore. Whereas it used to take all day to travel thirty miles to Peshawar, the provincial capital, it takes less than two hours to get there in a van.  Much of the innocence and simplicity of the past was, however, lost to the progress and convenience of the present age. Ziam Qala was just not relevant anymore.

Someone brought a tray of aromatic fruit drink rooh-afza for us.  This was in keeping with the local tradition of feeding the guests. It was very refreshing. Then it was time to say goodbye.

On the way to the Peshawar, we seemed to pass through many time zones.  In some places, the time had stood still as if still at the turn of the century; the bullock carts and native brown sugar mills dotting the countryside.  At other places, the 20th century - with modern transportation, television antennas and Coca Cola - was very evident.  The waters of the Swat River however flowed serenely through the canal, bearing witness to the changes that had occurred in the past 40 years.

Author’s Note: This essay was originally written in 1990

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery and an Emeritus Professor of Humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. He is the author more recently of A Tapestry of Medicine and Life, a book of essays, and Hasde Wasde Log, a book of profiles in Urdu. He may be reached at: